Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz
Cormac McCarthy, the brilliant 80-year-old novelist of No Country for Old Men and The Road, writes great books. What he cannot seem to do in this, his first movie script, (despite all the talent helping him) is create a film that isn’t overly verbose, punctuated by extreme violence and cruelty just to give the illusion of movement.
Great novelists, like Mario Puzo (the Godfather trilogy) and William Goldman (The Princess Bride, All the President’s Men), have also been successful as screenwriters. Most, though, including McCarthy, haven’t successfully made the transition.
In The Counselor, Fassbender is a lawyer (no one ever calls him anything but Counselor) trying to woo his girlfriend Cruz. For the cash, he decides to help Pitt with a cocaine shipment, just once and out. (Right.) When the transaction fails, he has to go to Bardem and his girlfriend Diaz to help clean up the mess. However, evil Bardem and Diaz have another plan, engaging in a sport to screw with Fassbender and Cruz.
For reasons I can barely fathom, people in this film have weird pets and absurdly extravagant taste in decor. At one point, Diaz humps a car. I suppose these bits show the depravity of their excessive lifestyles.
This film feels overlong, partially because many scenes have nothing to do with the paper-thin plot. Worse yet, McCarthy’s script has actors blathering on and on. Time is of the essence, and lives are at stake, and then a character gets up on a soapbox. Each performer, it seems, is contractually rewarded at least one long monologue in The Counselor. One tirade is about the illegal drug business. Another lecture is on how such work turns people irrevocably wicked.
Novels can be circuitous, with scenes about underlying themes and random added people. Movies are all character and visual. Every word, every shot has to be concise, revealing core personality or showing something interesting.
To try to fix the wordiness, director Ridley Scott amps up the violence. Even for such an ugly film about unlikable people, the viciousness is overwhelming. It makes McCarthy’s hideous world even grosser; there’s no entertainment value.
McCarthy has had some film success in the past. The Coen brothers turned No Country into a stellar film. For some reason, Scott cannot do it here. The Counselor reminded me of why I disliked The Road: too much dreary talking in hopelessness without any sense of light or pace.
Still, I admit that these actors are pretty phenomenal. (Except Diaz: she’s abysmal as the femme fatale.) McCarthy is respected enough to have attracted them and Scott to the project. In the last third of the film, the director and Fassbender get two or three brilliant scenes.
It’s clear McCarthy wanted to talk about how our rampant consumerism in its worst form transforms into the bloody, heartless drug trade. That idea, though, is an essay, perhaps, with some more compelling, succinct characters, a novel. In its current form, it makes a lackluster movie.